Started by 24-year-old Abhijit Sinha, Project Defy, is turning one small village outside Bengaluru into a hub of innovation and opportunity
A little girl sits at the back of the class uninterested in most of the lessons, except when it comes to drawing. In that class, she is animatedly working away, and the teacher, taken aback by her intense absorption and enjoyment, asks her what she is drawing. “I’m drawing God,” the little girl answers nonchalantly. “But nobody knows what God looks like,” admonishes the teacher. Unfazed, the child retorts, “Well, they will in a minute!”
This now familiar anecdote is often used to contrast the creativity and ingenuity of children and the unimaginative rigidity of thinking that adults around them, and especially school teachers, often display.
In his hugely popular TED talk entitled Changing Education Paradigms, Sir Ken Robinson points to the problem with our current factory-line education model, noting that “they are trying to meet the future by doing what they did in the past, and along the way they are alienating millions of kids who don’t see any purpose in going to school”.
One such alienated Bangalore-based engineering student is now on a mission to challenge the current education paradigm in India. Abhijit Sinha (right) was 22 when he completed his studies at a prestigious engineering college in the city. But he’d hated every minute of it: “The teachers were deeply incompetent; there were classes in Artificial Intelligence but no one actually knew how to write a line of code for it.”
He started on his own self-learning journey through MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), through which he taught himself AI, Mechanical Design, Machine Learning, etc. “All my knowledge and skills as an engineer stem from my online learning,” he says.
A stint in Uganda followed, where he worked on a variety of projects, one of which was Bodacart, a low-cost ambulance, designed and built for $500. This experience with hands-on collaborative making sparked the idea of an alternative education approach modeled around the Makerspace idea.
He founded Project DEFY (Design Education For Yourself) in Banjarapalya village, on the outskirts of Bengaluru. DEFY is a ‘school’ without teachers, based on the peer-to-peer learning model, where children learn from each other.
“When I first arrived and set up the space with five computers and maker tools, people would come in for fun and out of curiosity. I didn’t speak a word of Kannada, so I couldn’t communicate with them. All I did was to show them how to get to Arvind Gupta’s toy-making site. They’d watch the videos and start making. Slowly, I started to increase the number of websites that they could learn and make from, including YouTube,” says Abhijit.
What started as mere fun became an exercise in serious skill development and problem solving: From toys, children and adults started creating projects around textiles, agriculture and mechanics.
A nine-year-old boy who had never coded before he entered this space, created a game on Scratch, a programming language; other ‘projects’ included an aquaponics system, as well as a toy boat that measured pollution in a lake.
This idea of collaborative learning and peer-to-peer teaching gained traction with Sugata Mitra’s 1999 hole-in-the-wall project in New Delhi, where he installed computers in the walls of slums and came back in six months to see the results. The results were astonishing enough for the world to take notice and for his project to be awarded the TED prize. He found that, left to their own devices, children could teach themselves and each other anything, including complex scientific ideas in a language they didn’t know.
“Traditional academia is top down, where you are taught what someone else thinks you should learn. True education is where the person goes out and teaches himself the things he or she really wants to learn, where they take responsibility for their own education and have fun with it. These kids love learning in this space and hate going to school, a fact that has put the local headmaster’s nose out of joint,” says Abhijit.
One of the most heartening sights at DEFY is the eager participation of girls, who get their hands dirty, while learning about electronics, coding, fabrication, and robotics. Nineteen-year-old Ajay left home when his parents objected to him attending DEFY instead of getting a job. “I told them not to worry about me, that I would fend for myself, but that I would do it by following what I love,” he says.
He is currently building an aquaponics system that he would like to turn into a business. Some of the older kids have been offered jobs in Bengaluru.
“Banjrapalya was my experiment, to see if the model worked,” says Abhijit, “Now I know that I can create a space with the tools, merely show people their options, and step back. After a few months, I can hand over the responsibility of the space to the locals who take ownership of everything, including the financials.”
Abhijit, now 24, is moving to the next phase of setting up four more spaces around the country, and is running a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds. “I’ve had so much support from urban Bangalore, not just with funding, but with people visiting, offering resources, mentorship, and connections.”
The locals are now connected to the larger networks in the city and that is crucial. “Some of my greatest learnings came from my mentors, like MIT professors, Kanthari Founder and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Sabriye Tenberken, all of whom I personally reached out to. In this process, we’ve all learnt from each other. So I encourage these kids to go out and ask questions, seek out mentors, take responsibility for their own growth,” Abhijit says.
“Right now education and jobs are standing at the edge of disruption. The only thing that human history has ever required is that we notice our constantly changing world, ask questions, and change with it.”
Education progressives everywhere are vehemently nodding their heads.
First published by Bangalore Mirror